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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Cassavetes, The Mob and Realism: ‘The Killing of a Chinese Bookie’

Of all the key figures involved in American independent cinema over the last 50 years or so, the late John Cassavetes was certainly one of the most interesting and enigmatic. When he wasn’t creating seminal, free-form abstract work that defined an entire genre, he seemed content to use his brooding good looks to secure acting gigs in a variety of films, encompassing glossy, big budget mainstream outings such as Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), right through to low budget exploitation movies such as 1982’s Incubus, a gloriously tacky and enjoyable horror film that Cassavetes nevertheless appears to have taken fairly seriously, as was his wont. (Unhappy with the screenplay for Incubus, Cassavetes re-wrote large parts of it on-set, demonstrating that a committed and passionate writer/director can never properly switch off).

No doubt the prime motivation for Cassavetes’ participation in such films was money, and if those salaries bought him some time and artistic freedom, and helped bankroll mini-masterpieces like The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, then all the better. Despite the film’s art-house credentials, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is perhaps Cassavetes’ most well-known and conventional work, and it seems incomprehensible that it was panned upon its initial release, before a hasty re-edit by the director addressed its perceived deficiencies.

This beautiful Limited Edition 3-Disc Dual Format DVD/Blu-ray set from the BFI features the film’s two incarnations: the original 134-minute version, and Cassavetes’ shorter 109-minute edit that was assembled in 1978 (the latter version is the focus of this review). Additionally, there is a bonus disc containing the documentary Anything for John (1993), the short film Haircut (1982), and an interview with Tamar Hoffs, director of The Haircut. The handsome package is rounded off with selected commentaries and interviews, and a comprehensive illustrated booklet. (The film is also available in a standard 2-disc set, containing everything except the extra bonus films).

Shot in 1976, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie stars Ben Gazzara as Cosmo Vittelli, the proud owner of the Crazy Horse West nightclub on Sunset Strip. Surrounded by a seedy nocturnal world of petty criminality, things turn serious when Vittelli, after losing heavily at the gambling table, finds himself owing $23,000 to local gangsters. Unable to pay, he is coerced into carrying out an underworld hit for them, in order to erase his large debt. However, whilst Vittelli believes the proposed victim is insignificant – the titular Chinese bookie – the target is actually an elderly and powerful Triad boss. If the hit goes ahead as planned, it could instigate disastrous retribution against the hapless Vittelli.

A classic, noirish study of the lethal combination of masculine pride and arrogant self-destruction, the film’s subtle and very naturalistic tone is similar to Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese’s excellent examination of Catholic guilt and the fallibility of criminals. This similarity is no coincidence, either: Scorsese and Cassavetes had together formulated a treatment for The Killing of a Chinese Bookie several years previously, during an editing session on Scorsese’s film, and indeed Cassavetes even claimed to have completed the script for The Killing of a Chinese Bookie with the sole intention of handing it over to Scorsese to direct.

Interestingly, both The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Mean Streets are a long way from the terrific, elaborate and expensive crime films that Scorsese would come to direct twenty years or so later. By then, Scorsese was more interested in deconstructing the glamour, mythology and iconography of famous and wealthy Mafia figures, rather than realism and the seamier, low-key experiences of small-time gangsters at street level.

As his situation worsens, we genuinely feel for Vittelli. His coterie of dancing girls from the club represents a kind of surrogate family to him, and the way he clings to them for emotional stability is quite endearing. Moreover, whilst it’s difficult to truly warm to him due to his social pretensions, his arrogant chutzpah and his gambling problem, his primary motivation is nevertheless borne of a simple need to survive and succeed, unlike the avaricious, wealthy and ruthless criminals that circle him like dead-eyed sharks, always on the scam.

Vittelli is above all else a realist, acutely aware that he must play the game with all manner of undesirables in order to keep his club, and his head, above water, and it’s these conflictual, strained relationships that give the film its tension and power. (Take a close look at the excellent scenes between Vittelli and the mobsters: the veneer of affability between the two masks a great and unspoken contempt, and even when there is little dialogue between them, their facial expressions and body language say it all. These moments are terrific, and are great examples of subtle physical performance).

Vittelli’s misfortune reaches its zenith during the violent third act, and continues to the end, which is left ambiguous. Despite his proud attachment to the club as a “straight” venture, the criminality that gradually consumes him is unavoidable, and it’s realistically portrayed as unfruitful, painful, unglamorous, and above all, un-Hollywood — just like most of Cassavetes’ unconventional work. Despite coveting legitimacy, Vittelli’s lack of control forces him into situations that are just as grubby and unpleasant as the seediest aspects of the Los Angelean underworld Cassavetes has captured so vividly. Whilst we can’t condone Vittelli’s actions or misjudgement, we can still sympathise with his predicament.

RATING 8 / 10